Understanding what to eat before you workout can be mind-boggling.
Perhaps you’re unsure if you should or actually need to eat before you workout?
And these are very valid questions because your nutrition can greatly impact your mood, energy level, and performance of your workouts.
Not only that, whatever approach you take – optimal or not – has a knock-on effect on all your future workouts, so you need to set yourself up for success.
There are lots of varying factors when it comes to pre-workout nutrition. What to eat, when, and how much, for example.
But all this largely comes down to what time of the day you work out, what exercise you’re doing, and what your goals are.
We’ll get into this very soon though, so stay with me,
Why Is It Important to Eat Before You Workout?
You’ve more than likely had one of those workouts where you felt tired, hungry, and had low energy levels.
Did you feel you didn’t have enough energy to perform optimally in your workout?
Now think back to before your workout.
When was the last time you ate?
What was it that you ate?
How much did you have?
These are all super important questions to know the answers to because they can be the difference between a high or low-performance workout.
Ultimately, the body uses food for fuel and taps into your glycogen stores, which helps get you through your workouts. And if you haven’t got enough fuel then you’re going to struggle.
Think of it like a car needing gas in order to drive it.
You’re not going to get very far on a low tank of gas when your destination is 150 miles away.
The body is the same.
Not enough fuel = sub-par workout. And you need the right foods at that.
Another important note is that what you eat before you workout is essential towards reaching your goals. You’re not going to conquer that 10k if you’re not providing your body with enough fuel before each practice run.
In the same breath, you’re not going to add that 20lb to your bench if you’re not eating enough before you step foot in the gym.
Some of the most common signs of not having enough food pre-workout are:
- Performance down in the gym
- Lack of results
- Injury or passing out
How Long Should You Eat Before You Workout?
This very much depends on what type of exercise you’re doing.
I’ve done a bunch of different sports and workouts over the years and I can honestly say it differs from one to the next as to how long I’ve eaten before working out.
For example, how long you eat before a 30-45-minute powerwalk is going to differ from how long you eat before running a half marathon.
I’ve gone for a powerwalk 3 hours after my last meal in the past, and I’ve been perfectly fine. 2-3 hours is great for most people.
With a long-distance run, I’d suggest 90-120 minutes. It’s a case of trial and error and seeing what works best for you.
For general gym goers (this includes bodybuilders and resistance trainers), I’d recommend a high-quality whole food meal around 60-90 minutes pre-workout.
So, to break it down:
Light workout (walk, powerwalk, slow cycle, etc): 2-3 hours.
Moderate intensity workout (gym work, resistance training, small-medium size runs/cycles, etc): 60-90 minutes.
High-intensity workout (powerlifting, long-distance runs, sprints, speed cycling, any exercise over 2hrs +): 60-90 mins MAX.
Of course, it goes without saying that if you’re hungry before these guidelines then eat at the right time for you. Just make sure you don’t eat too early otherwise it may impact your performance.
The time you work out matters
The advice above is all well and good if you have the luxury of working out at “normal” times, but some of you don’t so this needs to be taken into consideration.
Some of us have life stuff happening (ugh) and we have to be adults.
For example, I can’t work out whenever I like. It either has to be super, super early (like 4am early!) or later on in the evening. So I don’t really fancy getting up at 2am to line my stomach before crushing a 4am workout.
So here’s the deal:
If you’re exercising first thing in the morning, depending on what type of workout you’re doing, you can work out on an empty stomach. Although I’d always recommend you eat beforehand.
But some people just can’t stomach it, and that’s fine. I can’t shove a full meal down my neck if it’s before 5am so I feel you.
If you’re planning on doing a workout any longer than an hour, you should definitely line your stomach with something.
So if you struggle with an appetite that early, or you’re up against the clock, then I’d aim for a light snack of around 200 calories and that should see you right.
I’d suggest a whey protein shake or a little bit of Greek Yogurt with a piece of fruit, for example. But don’t go crazy with the Greek Yogurt.
If it’s an intense workout I’d suggest having something more carb-focused like a bagel with a small amount of fat (cashew nut butter or peanut butter). And add some protein from a whey shake or egg whites, for example.
I’d avoid normal yogurts and creamy foods. They can take a while to digest and make you feel icky.
But if you’re one of those who can eat early, and you have enough time to eat, then take advantage and have a nice breakfast.
You’ll notice the difference in your workouts if you can eat a proper meal.
If you’re exercising later in the day, and you haven’t eaten for a couple of hours, you should be good to go. But see how you feel.
If you think a small snack will help, then have one. A 100-200 calorie snack is enough here.
Sometimes just the simple fact of knowing you’ve eaten can improve your performance.
What Is Good Workout Food?
Quality foods that are from protein and carbohydrates.
Chicken, turkey, white fish, egg whites, and cottage cheese are good sources of protein. You could have lean beef too, although red meat takes longer to digest.
But if you do decide to have beef, make sure you opt for the lower fat stuff.
You’re also best shooting for complex carbohydrates like whole grains such as wholemeal pasta or bread, rice (any type), bagels, banana, rice cake, oatmeal (although this can cause bloating in some), and fruit (except apple).
These are some of the best foods to have for carbohydrate sources.
Be mindful of fats
I’m a big advocate of having good, healthy fats in your diet, but I’m very wary of having them before your workout.
Fats are the most calorific macronutrient out of all three (the other two being protein and carbohydrates), and they can fill you up a lot, which can make your stomach unsettled.
And if your stomach’s unsettled, your workout might suffer.
Plus, fat is slow digesting. Because of this it can make you feel sickly and sit in your stomach for longer than it needs to.
However, that being said, some people experience low blood sugar levels during/post-exercise which causes them to feel faint/lightheaded.
I was one of those people.
A few reasons can cause this, but I’ve personally found that when I was on a weight loss diet and my calories were relatively low, my blood sugar dipped during and after my workouts and I didn’t feel so great.
This happened because my body was burning through energy pretty quickly. Low enough calories will do this to you.
Wanna know the remedy for preventing low blood sugar during/post workout?…
Having some fat pre-workout!
Ah, the irony!
A small amount of fat pre-workout will slow the digestion of carbohydrates into your bloodstream and stop you from feeling faint.
You only literally need 5-7g of fat. That’s the equivalent of a half/ tablespoon of peanut butter, which is a great option by the way.
To be honest, the exact same principles should be used for your post-workout meal too. Limit your fat intake.
You want any and all nutrients to get into the bloodstream as soon as possible, and fat slows that process down.
Foods to Avoid Before A Workout
Give the following foods a side-step before your workout:
They take too long to digest which can give you an upset stomach. These are foods like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, etc.
They’re pretty much pure sugar. Not good.
Your body will burn through it super fast which won’t help your workout performance and might leave you feeling lightheaded.
Most are usually high in fat and sugar. And that’s exactly what you don’t want to eat before you workout. Plus, dairy isn’t the easiest to digest so your gym time may be spent in the bathroom.
As I mentioned earlier. Fat takes a lot longer to digest than protein and carbohydrates. They can also make you feel sluggish.
You’re basically drinking a dessert. They’re not very healthy for you despite being marketed as such. It’s a quick sugar fix, but then you’re left with the inevitable crash causing you to feel like poop.
They’re filled with too much sugar and bad fats. You’ll likely be super full and not feel great during your workout.
A lot of people think these are great pre-workout, but they’re really not. They’re filled with sugar and are heavy in caffeine which causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise.
Similar to energy drinks. They’re loaded with sugar and caffeine. They don’t hydrate you and the quick sugar hit you get soon disappears by the time you’ve got to the gym.
Having Carbohydrates Around Workouts
This is mainly for people who are following a macronutrient diet plan, i.e. they’re counting exactly how many grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats they’re consuming each day.
Although anyone can use this method. Perhaps you’re not counting calories at all. I actually wrote an article on whether or not counting calories is needed to lose weight. Check it out here.
But what we’re talking about here is carbohydrates.
It’s a great approach for those who are in a calorie deficit trying to lose weight and retain as much muscle mass as possible.
For example, let’s say you’re counting macros (macronutrients; protein, carbs, and fats) and you’re on 80-100 grams of carbs per day.
You might not want to space them out over 3-4 meals because you feel like 25 grams of carbs per meal isn’t enough and it’s merely a mouthful.
Or, let’s take those who are purely calorie counting and they’re not specific with their macronutrient numbers. It works the same way.
A good way to get the most out of your workouts is by manipulating your carbohydrates around them.
So you’d aim to have the bulk of your carbohydrates before and after your workout.
If you’re on 100 grams of carbs per day you could have 35-40 grams pre-workout, and 45-50 grams post-workout. This leaves you with 20-30 grams to have in another meal away from the workout.
I found this works really well. My performance was way better.
Or, you could go gung-ho and have all your carbohydrates pre and post-workout.
Then have the rest of your calories from protein and fat in the meals away from the pre and post-workout window.
It’s worth playing with and seeing how you feel.
Intra-Workout Nutrition: Do You Need it?
You might’ve heard of the term “intra-workout“.
If you haven’t you’re not alone because it’s quite a new-age thing. It’s definitely more popular now than it was 5-6 years ago.
There’s a great article that tells you more about intra-nutrition here. Give it a read.
Just ask any sports dietitian and I’m sure they will tell you their thoughts on it.
Basically, all it’s referring to is food that’s consumed during a workout. And this is where the term “intra” comes from – meaning “during“.
The “food” is usually a shake that you sip on during your workout that slows down the breakdown of muscle supplies.
The idea is that you’re using the fuel from the shake to assist your workout, which helps with your recovery.
When my focus was 100% on weight training, I always had an intra-workout shake (besides when I was in a heavy cutting stage).
It definitely helped me power through intense workouts.
I also noticed my recovery was improved both post-workout and the following couple of days.
How do you do it?
It’s pretty simple, actually.
You take in anywhere between 25-100 grams of simple carbs like dextrin during your workout. You can use dextrose (just make sure it’s high quality), or something like Karbolyn.
I used to always use Karbolyn. They are a superb company.
And no, I’m not affiliated.
You also need some hydrolyzed whey protein in your shake too. Anywhere between 10-25 grams is ample. It really depends on the level of intensity you’re training at. Give this little article a read if you want to learn more about it.
There’s also the option to add some branched-chain amino acids, creatine, and leucine to the shake too, but this definitely isn’t necessary for most.
I would say this is catered towards the more serious trainer.
Fill a 2-liter bottle up with water, add the required amount of hydrolyzed whey and Karbolyn, and voila! Sip it during your workout.
You do have the option to buy flavored Karbolyn (or other dextrose-related products), which definitely does help the taste. But if I was you I’d add some water enhancer to the shake to give it an extra kick as it’s pretty bland otherwise.
I understand all this may seem a lot – and I’m really not a fan of workout supplements as such – but if I was to go with any it’d be a dextrin powder intra-workout, especially when weight training.
Cardio and intra-workout nutrition
If you’re doing low/medium intensity cardio, there’s no need for intra-nutrition.
A 5-10k run or cycle doesn’t require any.
The same applies if you’re someone who likes to go to the gym to keep fit and has a go on all the equipment.
However, if you’re doing long-distance runs, cycling, etc, for example, I’d recommend some carbohydrate gels.
You don’t really want to be lugging a big 2-liter bottle on a 10-mile run, do you? So gels are a perfect option for this.
Strength training and intra-workout nutrition
If you’re a serious trainer like a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or someone in between, it’s worth considering an intra-workout shake.
It really depends on how experienced you are and the level of intensity you train at.
If the nutrition side of things isn’t a priority for you then perhaps you don’t need an intra shake.
But, if you’re someone who counts every calorie or macronutrient, has all their workouts monitored and logged for progression purposes, etc, then I’d say an intra shake would be ideal for you.
Either way, try it
If it sounds interesting, try it.
It’s all about trial and error and seeing what works for you.
You may be pleasantly surprised.
About the author
I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).